14 Nov 2014

Curiouser and curiouser: the hunt for the white widow

Africa Correspondent

With reported sightings in three continents in a matter of months, the story of Samantha Lewthwaite – the widow of 7/7 London bomber Germaine Lindsay – is becoming absurd.

If we are to believe certain sections of the media, Samantha Lewthwaite – aka the White Widow – was recently leading a group of al-Shabab fighters in Somalia into a battle.

Last month, she was supposedly training Islamic State group female suicide bombers in Syria. And this week a Russian news agency reported that she was killed in Ukraine by Russian snipers.

If we are to believe what we hear, Ms Lewthwaite – the most wanted woman in the world – has travelled through three continents within a short period. And she switches from fighting for Islamist causes to joining the Ukrainian army. It is simply bizarre.

But the Russian news agency’s claim is just the latest twist of a phenomenon that has been going on since Ms Lewthwaite was reported to be in east Africa a few years ago.

Westgate mall attack

Her story became one of great interest to the western media during the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi last year, in which al-Shabab gunmen killed 67 people. The media started speculating about reports of a white woman commander among the al-Shabab attackers. Unknown eyewitnesses confirmed seeing a white woman “leading” and “giving instructions” to the gunmen. To a degree, Samantha’s apparent involvement overshadowed the main event.

Al-Shabab Islamists don’t usually send women to battlefields, they play supporting roles

At the time, I asked the Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Dheere who told me that no women were involved in the Nairobi shopping mall attack and insisted “our boys are fighting for Islam”. Nevertheless, top Kenyan politicians including President Uhuru Kenyatta were confident enough to make public statements about potential involvement of “a white British woman.” Interpol issued a red notice for the arrest of Samantha Lewthwaite, and circulated her picture.

The hunt to find the so-called white widow began in earnest. Journalists descended to Kenya’s coastal city Mombasa where she’s believed to have lived in the past. Some journalists went to extreme lengths to find her and were following any veil-wearing white-looking women to their houses. Some of the residents are of Arab descent. Kenyan authorities were fabricating stuff just to feed a desperate media.

I once came up with an idea to go and search for Ms Lewthwaite in Somalia. I wanted to travel on the back of a camel because that’s her chosen mode of transport, according to media reports. My aim was to join the camel-traveling community in the hope of meeting someone who may have met her. Another idea was to print a large photo of Samantha, travel through villages in Somalia asking people if they have ever seen this face behind the veil.

Eventually, I gave up on both ideas.

The life and times of Samantha Lewthwaite

It is understandable why Ms Lewthwaite’s story would be of great interest. It has all the elements of a bestseller novel and a blockbuster Hollywood film.

She is white, British and from a working class family. Her father served in the British army – a patriotic family. But she’s abandoned everything that she stands for and chosen a completely different life; a life that is alien to her society. A life that made her join the “enemy”: the al-Qaeda linked Islamists. This is a fair portrayal of Samantha Lewthwaite.

However, what’s not true are her reported roles and activities. Remember she’s a mother of several children living in a region she knows very little about. And looking after the kids will keep her busy.

More importantly, al-Shabab Islamists don’t usually send women to battlefields, they play supporting roles. Ms Lewthwaite is certainly a highly respected figure within the global jihadi movements. Her late husband made the ultimate sacrifice for their cause. And she’s continuing on that path.

To them, she is an admirable figure – but not a fighter.

So next time you read a story about Samantha Lewthwaite, go ahead – read it for fun. But take it with a generous pinch of salt.